The first year-long expedition of the International Space Station (ISS) era is officially underway, following the spectacular launch of Russian cosmonauts Gennadi Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko, together with U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly, aboard Soyuz TMA-16M from Site 1/5 (the famed “Gagarin’s Start”) at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Launching on time into foggy skies at 1:42 a.m. local time Saturday, 28 March (3:42 p.m. EDT Friday, 27 March), the spacecraft and its powerful Soyuz-FG booster was delivered within nine minutes into low-Earth orbit, ahead of a now-standard six-hour and four-orbit “fast rendezvous” regime to dock at the station’s space-facing (or “zenith”) Poisk module at about 9:36 p.m. EDT. Padalka, Kornienko, and Kelly—who now boast 1,066 days of prior spaceflight experience—have now become the most flight-seasoned crew in history.
As described in AmericaSpace’s two-part preview of the One-Year Mission—found here and here—this lengthy expedition marks the first such voyage to be undertaken aboard the ISS and the longest spaceflight involving humans to have been conducted in the 21st century. Although four Soviet and Russian cosmonauts have spent periods in excess of 12 months aloft—Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov for 366 days from December 1987 through December 1988, Valeri Polyakov for 438 days from January 1994 through March 1995, and Sergei Avdeyev for 379 days from August 1998 through August 1999—each of their missions were performed aboard the long since deorbited Mir space station. Moreover, with Kelly and Kornienko expected to remain aboard the ISS until March 2016, they will become the first multi-national crew ever to participate in a mission of such extreme duration.
Following Wednesday’s rollout of the Soyuz-FG booster to Site 1/5 at Baikonur, the final days on Earth were busy ones for the crew. They were awakened about 8.5 hours before T-0 and, after showering and being disinfected, microbial samples were taken in support of the scientific experiments to be undertaken in orbit. Breakfast was followed by departure from Baikonur’s Cosmonaut Hotel and a traditional blessing by a Russian Orthodox priest. Padalka, Kornienko, and Kelly were bussed out to Site 254, where they donned their Sokol launch and entry suits and bade a final farewell—albeit from behind glass screens—to their families and friends. The trio then departed Site 254, bound for the pad, which they reached shortly after 11 p.m. local time (1:00 p.m. EDT) Friday.
They ascended the steps and were ensconced into their specially contoured seats aboard the bell-shaped Soyuz TMA-16M descent module and the hatch was closed, ahead of two hours of final checks. Servicing towers were fully retracted shortly after 1 a.m. local time Saturday (3 p.m. EDT Friday). “This means that the crew have no means of evacuating the spacecraft on the launch pad,” explained AmericaSpace’s Launch Tracker. “Should an emergency occur, then the launch abort system will activate, shooting the Soyuz spacecraft into the air and removing it from the vicinity of the launch complex.” On only two occasions—the suborbital mission of Soyuz 18A in April 1975 and the launch pad explosion of Soyuz T-10A in September 1983—has such a harrowing event ever occurred for real.
A descendent of Chief Designer Sergei Korolev’s R-7 missile, their launch vehicle had by this stage been fully fueled with a mixture of liquid oxygen and a refined form of rocket-grade kerosene (known as “RP-1”) by T-3 hours. After loading, the oxygen entered a “Topping” mode, whereby all cryogenic boil-off were rapidly replenished until shortly before launch. This ensured that all tanks remained at “Flight Ready” levels, prior to the ignition of the RD-108 engine of the Soyuz-FG’s first stage and the RD-107 engines of the four tapering, strap-on boosters.
By 1:23 a.m. local time Saturday (3:23 p.m. EDT Friday), the process of securing Site 1/5 got underway, as the final ground support engineers began to depart the launch complex. In the final 15 minutes, the Launch Abort System (LAS) was armed and transferred to Automatic Mode, the crew was instructed to close their visors and Padalka’s controls will be activated. Internal avionics were initiated and the on-board flight recorders will be spooled-up to monitor the Soyuz-FG’s myriad systems throughout ascent. Inside the control bunker, the “launch key”—an actual, physical key—was inserted at 1:38 a.m. local time Saturday (3:38 p.m. EDT Friday), in order to enable the ordnance to support Soyuz TMA-16M on its voyage. This was followed by the completion of nitrogen purging, the pressurization of the rocket’s propellant tanks, and the final topping-off of cryogens. The fill-and-drain safety valves were closed at 1:40 a.m. local time Saturday (3:40 p.m. EDT Friday), at T-2 minutes and 15 seconds.
A minute before liftoff the Soyuz-FG transferred to internal power, and at T-10 seconds the engine turbopumps attained full speed. By five seconds, the engines of the core and tapering boosters roared to life and quickly reached full power. This produced a retraction of the fueling tower and a liftoff into the foggy Baikonur sky at 1:42:59 a.m. local time on Saturday, 28 March (3:42:59 p.m. EDT on Friday, 27 March).
“Low clouds made for awesome but short view of liftoff!” tweeted NASA Chief Astronaut Bob Behnken, whilst Expedition 43 Commander Terry Virts—who, together with crewmates Anton Shkaplerov and Italy’s first woman in space, Samantha Cristoforetti, has been aboard the ISS since November 2014—witnessed the blaze of the Soyuz-FG delivering its precious payload of three humans into orbit. “#Soyuz popping through the clouds with Scott, Gennadi and Mikhail,” Virts tweeted, “on their way to join us.”
Added Scott Kelly’s identical twin brother, former shuttle astronaut Mark Kelly: “The first manned American spaceflight lasted 30 mins. And now, my brother @StationCDRKelly will spend a #YearInSpace. We’ve come a long way.” Although Mark Kelly retired from NASA in the fall of 2011—following a spectacular four-flight career, which saw him pilot the second post-Columbia Return to Flight (RFT) mission in July 2006 and the final voyage of Shuttle Endeavour in May-June 2011—he will participate in a series of comparative genetic studies, including blood sampling and psychological and physical tests. This research will compare data from the genetically identical Kelly twins to identify any subtle changes induced by spaceflight. The studies were described in more depth in a recent AmericaSpace article by Emily Carney.
Rising rapidly, the rocket exceeded 1,100 mph (1,770 km/h), within a minute of clearing the tower, and at T+118 seconds the four tapering boosters were jettisoned, leaving the core stage alone to continue the boost into low-Earth orbit. By the two-minute mark, Padalka, Kornienko, and Kelly had surpassed 3,350 mph (5,390 km/h), and, shortly thereafter, the escape tower and launch shroud separated, exposing Soyuz TMA-16M to the near-vacuum of the rarefied high atmosphere. Four minutes and 58 seconds after leaving the desolate steppe of Central Asia, the core booster separated at an altitude of 105.6 statute miles (170 km) and the third and final stage ignited, accelerating the Soyuz to a velocity of more than 13,420 mph (21,600 km/h).
By the time the third stage separated from Soyuz TMA-16M, at 1:51:49 a.m. Baikonur time Saturday (3:51:49 p.m. EDT Friday), nine minutes into the flight, the crew entered an orbit of about 125 x 160 miles (200 x 260 km), inclined 51.66 degrees to the equator, and began the process of deploying their craft’s communications and navigation antennas and solar arrays. Unlike Soyuz TMA-14M, which experienced difficulties in the aftermath of its September 2014 launch, on this occasion the arrays were confirmed to have deployed satisfactorily by 1:58 a.m. Baikonur time Saturday (3:58 p.m. EDT Friday), setting Padalka, Kornienko and Kelly off to a fine start on their six-hour journey to the ISS.
Like several of its predecessors, Soyuz TMA-16M’s six-hour, four-orbit “fast rendezvous” profile is deemed appropriate to alleviate pressure on the crew. Earlier missions typically followed a two-day rendezvous regime, which proved more economical in terms of propellant expenditure, but also tended to be highly cramped, stressful, and exacerbated nausea and motion sickness. First trialed by an unmanned Progress resupply craft in August 2012, the “fast rendezvous” was successfully executed by four Soyuz crews last year and would have been performed by Soyuz TMA-12M in March 2014, but for a malfunction shortly after orbital insertion. This forced the crew to revert to the standard two-day, 34-orbit approach profile, which was completed successfully. Since then, three other Soyuz crews have flawlessly completed the fast rendezvous profile.
“Same-day” rendezvous and docking are nothing new. In September 1966, Gemini XI astronauts Charles “Pete” Conrad and Dick Gordon accomplished a rendezvous and docking with an Agena target vehicle just 85 minutes and a single orbit after launch. Several years later, during the Skylab era, crews followed an expedited rendezvous lasting nine hours to reach their home in space. However, since the late 1970s, in the interests of propellant economy, most crews—including shuttle-Mir and ISS flights—spent between one and two days in transit, prior to docking. “Scott Kelly’s mission is critical to advancing the administration’s plans to send humans on a journey to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden in a post-launch announcement. “We’ll gain new, detailed insights on the ways long-duration spaceflight affects the human body.”
Four maneuvering “burns” are currently underway to raise the apogee of Soyuz TMA-16M’s orbit to reach the operational altitude of the ISS. The first and second burns (DV-1 and DV-2) occurred 45 and 90 minutes, respectively, after liftoff. These will be followed by another pair of burns, later in the rendezvous sequence, which should position Soyuz TMA-16M for an on-time docking at the station’s space-facing (or “zenith”) Poisk module at 9:36 p.m. EDT Friday, about five hours and 54 minutes into the flight. Following standard pressure and leak checks, the hatches will be opened at about 11:15 p.m. and the trio will be greeted by the incumbent Expedition 43 crew of Terry Virts, Anton Shkaplerov, and Samantha Cristoforetti. The arrival of Padalka, Kornienko, and Kelly will thus restore the space station to its full, six-person capability. Padalka will remain aboard the ISS through mid-September, whilst Kelly and Kornienko will continue through March 2016 and a 342-day mission.
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